There is an increasingly common theme around our ongoing experience with COVID-19. Namely, despite the watershed changes the pandemic has made to our relationship with work, productivity, and how we socialize, not every change we’ve experienced this past year is a COVID-driven disruptor. Alongside last year’s quick shifts, there were also trends in place prior to 2020 that have only accelerated. We’re seeing it with the growth of technology as well as the greater emphasis on locations other than our central business districts.
Such also seems to be the case when the topic turns to amenities. It’s not just the obvious considerations like deeper cleaning, hand sanitizer stations, and plexiglass; this discussion revolves around the tenant and resident requests that make life bearable in both quiet times and periods of risk. These are the amenities that differentiate an asset and challenge property managers to think outside of the COVID-19 box, largely in the name of comfort and support. And, as you’ll read shortly, these requests can be fairly colorful.
The same, only more
Says Kevin Owens, CPM: “Rather than create a new need, more than anything, the pandemic has accelerated the implementation and reconfiguration of certain amenities.” Owens, the executive vice president of property operations for CF Real Estate Services in Atlanta, manages some 26,000 units and says the most common post-COVID request, especially from prospects, has been the ability to pass through a building and into their apartments in touchless fashion. And while CF was already building out its tech, the requests have ramped up, he says.
Despite CF’s blossoming technological capabilities, the focus seems to be on traditional offerings with a COVID twist. “They’re looking for areas to gather in a private space without a big crowd, with firepits and outdoor exercise equipment,” Owens says. “We’re not hearing anything much different than before.”
“Residents are looking for us to up our game in terms of amenities,” adds Miranda Jernigan, CPM, ARM, senior regional property manager at McLean, Virginia-based Kettler Management. Similar to before the pandemic, residents in the communities Kettler manages throughout the South and Mid-Atlantic states still want private work and play space. “They want us to have the latest and greatest in workout trends. Peloton bikes and virtual workouts are popular,” she says.
She says residents look to management to provide anything they can’t get in their apartments, including grilling stations and outdoor spaces where people can gather in small groups. Pet amenities also remain high on the resident wish list, such as dog washing stations. “The more we know about COVID, and the more we discover that gathering outside is safer, residents want to socialize rather than spend all their time in their apartments,” she says.
Regina Mullins, CPM, CCIM, adds an interesting riff on the requested-amenities theme from the commercial perspective. “It’s not so much that tenants are asking for it,” says the director of roughly 14 Washington D.C.-area properties for Cushman & Wakefield. “It’s the leasing brokers.”
Essentially, buildings in their sites have to check certain boxes. “Are you a class A building?” she asks. “If so, do you have a rooftop terrace, a fitness center, a conference center, and bike cages? Check, check, check.” But once again, “Those boxes didn’t change in 2020,” she says.
It stands to reason that the past year, with its meteoric rise in work-from-home approaches, would also bring a flood of social-gathering requests, such as those listed above, to provide some relief for overstressed residents. Akin to grilling stations and social areas, offices-on-demand give residents a chance to escape the confines of home. “We want to give our residents a chance to get out of their apartments and still get their jobs done,” says Owens, who is currently president of IREM’s Georgia Chapter.
“We’ve reconfigured some of our common areas to accommodate coworking,” he adds. This comes in addition to more informal spaces that can be used for heads-down work. While coworking providers will enter into bespoke agreements with managers and landlords to create five-star spaces, Owens says CF manages the spaces on its own. In certain markets, he adds, the firm had to upgrade its Wi-Fi offerings just to ensure volume reliability.
But once again, there’s nothing new under the COVID sun. “Personalized workspaces were a trend we saw four and five years ago,” says Jernigan, who was the 2018 president of IREM’s Northern Virginia Chapter. “Now they’re getting more use.”
Pay for play?
CPMs often chalk up the provision of such services to the cost of doing business. This has apparently been true through the pandemic as managers tried to help both tenants and residents over the hump of COVID-driven stresses. Chargebacks, however, are always an option.
“It depends in part on if you’re a class A or B building,” Mullins says. “But typically, there’s not a huge return on investment in these amenities,” other than getting on the short list of interested leasing brokers. For instance, towel service and attendants in fitness centers are costs typically eaten by building ownership, she says.
The same has been true for CF’s coworking spaces—at least for their test run. “These were provided to give our residents options,” Owens says. “Also, since they were a relatively new offering, we didn’t have a good idea of what people would pay for.” As the pandemic wore on, though, the demand soared. “We’ve been able to apply fees and actually grow them,” he says.
Owens notes that reservations and payments (the spaces are rented by the hour or the day) are handled by phone apps. Between uses, strict cleaning protocols are applied, “so the next user feels good about the space.”
Other offerings are harder to pin a cost to. Technology, he says, is tough to delineate. CF either folds the expenses into the base rent—depending in large part on what’s taking place in the local market—or ends up lumping tech, dog amenities, and the like into an umbrella amenities fee.
“We attempt to monetize most of our amenities, but the reality is that a lot of this is trial-and-error,” he says. With all first-time offerings, “we collect usage and market data to help us identify upfront what we can charge and then include those numbers in a pro forma,” he adds.
Amenities: onward and upward
Not surprisingly, the types of amenities occupants are asking for—and building managers are providing—are limited only by imagination. At the tamer end of the spectrum, Jernigan says they would sponsor monthly resident events in their communities. “After COVID, we flipped the script and started providing virtual events, something that would appeal to residents, get them outdoors and encourage small, safe gatherings,” Jernigan says. Food trucks are one example. Since the events were already budgeted, the property continues to foot the bill.
Moving a bit farther out on the scale, she says one of the Kettler-managed buildings has an indoor, half-court basketball court, a feature that also comes in handy for fitness classes and large resident events—at least with proper social distancing. Some of their properties offer rooftop dog parks, and she says other buildings have experimented with indoor pet areas.
Cooler still is the market set up in the lobby of another of their buildings, structured as a revenue share with management. “If the providing company meets a certain threshold, the building gets a certain percentage of the revenue,” she explains.
Increasingly, Owens says properties in the CF portfolio feature electric vehicle charging stations. While they’ve been popular in urban locations for a while now, he says their presence is growing in the suburbs, as well.
Almost as cool, however, are what Owens calls “experiential amenities, where we offer things like craft and building rooms where residents can paint something or build furniture. We provide the supplies and tools.”
But aren’t those accidents just waiting to happen? “The decision to offer any amenity has the potential for liability, even fitness environments,” he says. A rewording of insurance policies is a necessity, or, at the very least, they ask residents to sign a waiver. “We do as much as we can to protect ourselves, our clients, and our residents,” he says.
Ultimately, Owens sees more upside than down, especially in these cooped-up, COVID days. “When you live in an apartment, you don’t have many opportunities to do stuff like that.”
As stated, rooftop spaces in both commercial and residential properties are growing in their popularity for meetings and socializing. And here we find what’s probably the most intriguing of amenities: a rooftop apiary.
“We started doing it for sustainability,” Mullins says. “A vendor cares for the five hives in our Arlington property, and each houses about 1,000 bees. Honeybees in North America have been decimated, and our ownership has a strong environmental focus.”
And there’s an added benefit: honey. Curated by the vendor, the private-label jars are given to tenants and visitors alike. “It’s a marketing cost,” she explains.
In an era of unprecedented stresses, property managers have it in their power to help their residents and tenants maintain a bit of normalcy. The means to that end needn’t be budget- busting or even wildly creative; a space to gather or a change of scenery are really all it takes. While free honey is smart and purposeful, any well-crafted amenity will help make life sweeter for everyone involved.